Bret Stephens asks a question almost unavoidable looking at Iraqi voters braving deadly attacks in Sunday's election: are Iraqis more excited about democracy than Americans? "Among the most remarkable trends of recent years," remarks Stephens, "has been the disenchantment with the very idea of democracy." Iraq war critics have come to see civilian blood as a stain not just upon the insurgency but upon the American democratic project and, by extension, argues Stephens, the ideal of democracy in general. Yet "in the midst of those bloodbaths, the U.S. ceded civilian control to Iraqi authorities, who then conducted four democratic elections," Stephens points out.
Throughout all of this, Iraqis somehow held fast to their idea of a democratic country. How was that possible? How could they not behave according to type, as inveterate sectarians and anti-Americans? Didn't they perhaps miss the political clarity that dictatorship uniquely provides?Is it possible Iraqis are less cynical about democracy than Americans? (It's true that Thomas Friedman lauded Chinese authoritarian efficiency. But it's also true that bloggers attacked him for this.) Or, to extrapolate from Stephens's point a little: would Americans have braved deadly explosions to vote in 2008?
The late Michael Kelly knew the answer, and the answer was that Iraqis, unlike most of us in the West, knew tyranny, and therefore also knew what it meant to thirst for freedom.